The fact that Howard Hawks’ Red River ever got made is a feat so beyond the realms of logic that one has to wonder how Robert Ripley didn’t publish the story. The celebrated director couldn’t get lenser Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) and had to settle for the generally unknown Russell Harlan. Cary Grant turned down the role of gunslinger Cherry Valance and Hawks gave it to John Ireland, a notorious alcoholic who started a blatant homosexual affair with cutie-pie Montgomery Clift; a fact that upset the moral radars of star John Wayne and co-star Walter Brennan. Wayne came down with a severe cold; Hawks got poisoned from the bite of a centipede. At the end of shooting, the director gave his star a belt buckle; perhaps a Dear John letter would have been more apropos.
For all of its chaotic production and a tumultuous post production, which included being held from release for two years by Howard Hughes due to the film’s similarity to his film The Outlaw, Red River rightfully remains a classic of the Western genre and arguably Hawks’ most complex work. It is, compositionally speaking, certainly one of his most exhilarating films: Peter Bogdanovich would later use the famous ‘Yee-haw’ montage at the end The Last Picture Show, signifying nothing so much as the last hurrah of movie magic. No wonder Hawks would subsequently collaborate with Harlan five more times, most notably on Rio Bravo and The Thing from Another Planet.
But its technical prowess ultimately has little on the intricate nature of the story itself. Written by Charles Schnee and Borden Chase, who also wrote the story it was based on, River gives John Wayne perhaps his most demanding role as Thomas Dunson, a two-fisted cattle rancher making the big drive from Texas to Missouri with a dozen men in tow. Right behind him is his adopted son Matt (Clift in his debut performance) and his oldest friend Groot (Brennan, excellent as expected), who are supportive of him even as his bullheaded theatrics veer towards tyranny. Amongst rumors of a quicker, safer railhead in Kansas, a fatal stampede and a handful of deserters, Dunson suffers a rather swift mutiny when Matt takes over the drive and leaves him tied to his horse.
Dunson is at once the film’s hero and villain, as is Matt. Early in the film, upon arriving at the territory where he plans to raise his cattle, Dunson shoots the Mexican emissary of the land’s owner. It’s justified, in a way, but Red River is nothing if not a study of moral codes in conflict. After years of following his adoptive father’s lead, Matt finally ousts Dunson when the old man decides to hang three deserters who made off with water and food; it’s fitting that we never actually see Matt use the gun skills he learned from Dunson on his teacher but we witness the high noon standoff between their ideals.
Hawks focuses on Matt and Dunson but he adds a sense of community and he backs it up with some brilliant supporting turns. Most notably, besides Ireland’s menacing gun-for-hire, is Joanne Dru’s seductive turn as Tess, the woman in love with Matt and fascinated with Dunson, and Chief Yowlachie as Quo, the Indian trailhand who wins Groot’s dentures in a poker match. If there is one false note to be found, it is in the hopelessly slapdash ending that careens towards complacency after the elaborate morality play that has preceded it.
All facets of the production, however, cower in the shadow of Wayne who, under Hawks’ masterful eye, gives one of the most thoughtful performances of his career, on par with his work in The Searchers and The Shootist. Upon seeing River, the great John Ford, a longtime friend of the Duke and a rival of Hawks, uttered ‘I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.’ As it turned out he could and it was enough to center a production that was only a ‘Yee-haw!’ away from tumbling into the abyss.